The Cardinal Tile
Each and every plant along the trail was new to Alast. Their leaves were long, thin, and flopped down like lengths of string. The tree bark was pale and divided into square scales instead of the familiar cracking of the bropato. When he touched the leaf of a bush it curled itself into a tight ball against the stem. He pressed his foot against the base of the plant and the entire thing shrank down and curled until it looked like a serving dish with a floral pattern.
Birds could not sustain flight in the mist, so the whistles and chirps of the small bug-hunters startled Alast; he kept turning around to see if someone was whistling to get his attention.
The dust certainly got his attention. The soil was very loose and dry, and took up with the lightest breeze. Suddenly Alast heard something; it was soft like sleeping breath. He looked around to see every leaf of every plant retracting. Thick mops of green on the trees turned into thread wound tightly around uneven spools. The bushes flattened into stepping stones and the crawling vines buried themselves completely. They knew what was coming.
Alast only realized what he should have been preparing for when the first clod of dirt struck his eye. The growing wind blasted grit across his scalp, lodging it between his forehead and his flakes of peeling skin. He had known storms and their thunder, but not dust storms. A dust storm does not bellow at you, it does not threaten. It howls, straight through your body if it’s in the way. Rocks started to fly off the trail ahead of him and strike his chest. Finick whined and tried to crawl up his pant leg. Alast held his hands in front of his face and tried to push forward. He thought perhaps the strange weather was like a door; if he pushed through it would simply give up and bend out of his way. More dust was pulled into the air. It obliterated any sign of the path in front of him. He staggered forward for nearly half a drop trying to find a tree big enough to shade him. I’m back in the mist, he panicked. It’s come to drag me back! His chest tightened and his breath shallowed. I won’t go back, not with life still in me.
He looked down to see Finick scratching wildly at the dirt with his front paws. The little creature tossed the dirt under his tail in a thick spray, quickly forming a depression in the ground. That’s it Finick. We know how to use our heads now. The mist can’t even touch us. Alast dropped to his knees and started scooping dirt along with the haund. They dug and dug until the hole was deep enough for Alast to fit inside. He turned his pack inside out and dumped all their supplies into the bottom. Then he crawled in, pulled Finick down, and tore the pack to create a large flat sheet he could use to cover the hole. He anchored it with a few fist-sized stones and found that if he lay on his side and curled his legs close to his chest, there was enough room that the flapping cover did not strike his face.
Eventually night came. The dust persisted. How does it know I’m still here? Why does it grope blindly over my head? I have nothing to give it! Alast felt around in the darkness for his canteen. It was twistenhide, meaning it contracted when there was nothing inside. He’d started down the rope with it bulbous and heavy; now it looked like the small twisted horn of a pot-bellied bwag. He took one of the last two sips and then poured the other into his cupped hand for Finick. He stroked the animal’s back while it licked his hand clean. It took his mind several drops to turn the snarl of the wind into a lullaby.
When Alast awoke there was light peeking through the edges of his pack. He whispered a list of priorities. He wanted to be ready before exiting his burrow and facing another day of unpredictable drudgeries.
Tie the pack back together.
Pack up the food.
Make sure I’m going away from Metal Block and not back towards it.
Keep an eye out for water.
Don’t cry or give in to cruel nature.
Ignore the whistling.
Reach the trading post.
Make an exciting new life in the bounty of Porce.
Alast pulled back the cover, stood up, and brushed the dust off his clothes. He looked around. He was completely lost.
In the short time he’d wandered through the dust he’d lost the path. Wherever he was, there was a lot less plant life, only the occasional scaly twig poking out of the gravel. Alast looked to the sky to find Metal Block; surely he could reorient himself with its right angles to guide him. Clouds. Huge flat clouds blocking out much of the florent’s light and all of the world walls. They were close enough to hide the landmarks, but not close enough to give him rain.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said out loud. His voice cracked and he thought he felt a piece of his throat tumble down to his stomach like a loose chunk of slate down the side of a cliff. He was three drips away from failing the fifth item on his list of priorities. “I’m lost… I’m lost…” He waited for the world to finish his sentence.
The only thing he could see in any direction, aside from gently rolling hills, was a strange rigid dot in the distance. He could barely make out that it had corners. It also seemed to be moving slowly… maybe spinning in a circle. He squinted and then groaned when that only made his vision blur.
“What is that?” he asked Finick. The haund turned to stare in the same direction as his master. “I don’t even have a guess.” Alast looked down at Finick. The haund started panting. “If you’ve seen such a thing before you should tell me.” He started to chase his own tail. Alast weighed the option of wandering in any of the random directions full of nothing against the option of moving towards the rigid dot. Eventually his feet made the decision for him when his aching body leaned forward. Towards the dot it is.
The closer he drew the clearer the object became. In no time at all he knew it was a square, positioned with one corner towards the ground and spinning on some kind of wire or turning rod. What he did not know was that it was one of the eight most important squares in all of Porce.
Porce, the boxed world of tilestone and water, was older than Alast could comprehend. Yet there was a world even older that Porce had spawned from. Porce was just a pebble forcibly cleaved from a mightier stone. It was left to spin in the infinite Dark Empty, doomed to eventually collide with other debris. The earliest lives of Porce became aware and took the matter in as their greatest challenge. They bottled the wild winds of the Dark Empty and fused them with eight square stones of Porce, transforming them into the cardinal tiles. The tiles were placed upon crucial pedestals along the walls of the world, where they steadied Porce in the Dark Empty. The cardinal tile Alast wandered towards like a beautiful mirage was Cardinal Second and it, like Alast, was very far from its home.
Someone was seated in front of Cardinal Second; Alast was sure of it now. He clearly saw a hunched figure sitting on a layered gray stone. He stopped in his tracks, but Finick kept moving forward. He didn’t have time to think about the person’s intentions, nor did he have time to remember how he reacted the last time someone snuck up on him. He crept forward awkwardly, barely keeping pace with the panting haund. I can’t startle them, he thought. That’s sure to upset them.
“Hello!” he called out to the figure. “I’m sorry to interrupt your… sitting. I’m afraid I’m lost. I’m looking for a trading post.” The figure’s shoulders turned. It stood up. Its head was dark and had no clear features. Then it separated from the neck and Alast saw that it was just a block of carved wood at the end of a long staff held in one of its arms. Feet. Legs. Torso. Arms. All as you would expect them. No head. The yellow cape around its shoulders fell to the ground when it turned all the way around. Alast stopped walking. Finick skidded to a halt in the dust and ran back to hide behind his master’s ankle.
The creature wore baggy pants and a tarnished silvery belt lined with buckles. Its chest and arms were bare of cloth but covered in thick, curly, reddish hair. It had two large eyes, each one set just below the collarbone; the irises were yellow and the pupils had jagged edges like a pen poked through paper. A flat nose ran the length of the sternum and a wide mouth, with teeth sharper than Alast’s, ran under the ribs and all the way across its body. Alast did not notice these features until he’d accepted the lack of a head as something the creatures of Porce were allowed to embody.
The creature barked something at Alast in a language he’d never heard. Alast did not even know other languages existed, so he assumed it was clearing its throat… or its stomach. There was no telling what strange organs did what behind the face on its torso.
“Wo yar woze?” it repeated.
“Wh-what?” Alast stuttered. “I don’t know… uhm… Do you know where the trading post is?” Though the creature looked fearsome, it had to be intelligent. It was smart enough to sit with a fake head positioned to mimic a regular man. Alast’s eyes flitted to the side and noticed a pitched tent of bristly blue hide, a fire pit, and several cooking implements. Either it knew how to camp or it had eaten the man that did.
“He hrofcallerd nof yarhn zo,” the creature said, more irritably this time. It took a step towards him. Suddenly the stick with the wooden head at the end looked much more like a hammer. Alast reached back and pulled the knife out of his pack. He pointed it at the creature. The headless man took a few steps to the side. Alast got his first good look at Cardinal Second and realized that the stone was not on any sort of wire at all; it hovered under its own power, two foams off the ground. Dozens of pebbles floated under it and circled as it spun.
“What is that thing?” he asked before remembering he’d just made a threat. His hands were still so used to the rope that his wrist bent in as he extended his arm, pointing the length of the blade at the creature rather than the tip. “I… I don’t want to hurt you. I just need to know where to go.” He did his best to mime traveling, eating, and drinking with his one free hand.
“He nahberndehan igynrante,” the creature growled. It grabbed its staff in both hands and charged, howling, at Alast. With his walking worse than a shellenfowl fledgling, Alast could not run. He tried to adopt a fighting stance, but the knife was uncomfortably light in his hand.
When the two weapons clashed Alast was tossed ten foams away into the dirt. The knife was firmly lodged between the eyes of the false head. Why couldn’t that have been attached, he moaned to himself. Finick barked at the creature as fiercely as he could muster, but the headless man just opened his mouth from ribs to waist and barked back until the haund quieted. Alast pulled himself to his feet and made a run for the man-creature’s camp. His foe swung his hammer around and hit Alast in the back. The boy turned in the air and snatched the knife back from the tip of the hammer before collapsing to the ground again.
This time he was next to Cardinal Second, so he pulled himself up and hid behind the stone square. It spun at the same pace, unconcerned with the happenings around it. The headless man had done an awful lot to get Cardinal Second where it was now, so he was careful not to swing the weapon near the relic. He chased Alast five times around the square before getting tired of the childish game. He swept the length of the hammer underneath the cardinal tile and tripped Alast. A drip later he had his foot pressed against the boy’s chest. The creature hefted the hammer up over his shoulders and prepared to slam its wooden forehead into Alast’s.
An arrow struck the back of the hammer’s head and split the wood. The creature took his foot off Alast and turned to see where it had come from. Alast took the chance to get back to his feet and hide behind the tent.
“Hran-ting hitmir,” the creature swore as he lowered his ruined hammer. A party of six riders and steeds galloped into the camp site. They split into pairs and circled the creature, the tile, and the tent. As far as Alast could see they all had heads firmly attached to their necks.
The boy had never seen such steeds before. Their bristling fur was an airy blue that turned green near the feet, which ended in tiny cloven hooves. The creatures appeared to be standing on the tips of their toes. Their bodies were very lean; their haunches seemed to flinch constantly whenever they were forced to stand still. On their heads were long ears with fleshed ribbing on the inside. Their noses were tiny twitching orange bumps. Before he could wonder if their diet consisted of mist-grown adolescents, he heard one of the riders address the headless man.
“You brought it all the way out here? What are you doing Dlak?” the rider asked.
“Geh-ban mahda absgung,” the headless man answered.
Alast could not see the conversation crouched behind the tent. He stared up in fear at the two riders looking down at him. He dropped his knife and slowly rose to his feet to get a better look. One of them was a woman with stony features and long black hair. Alast had never seen hair of such length; his mind conjured images of roads and bridges grown from it. The other rider was a man with skin nearly as dark as the woman’s hair. Alast had never seen that either. One misty winter, when the fog was so cold you had to push through it like snow, Alast had seen an old man’s frostbitten hand that was nearly the same color. The hand was removed with an axe. Alast could not see a way to treat this man’s ailment; there was nothing to remove the blackness from. He didn’t seem bothered by his condition as he stared down at Alast with eyes so bright they practically glowed.
“Captain, there’s a boy over here,” the dark man called. “He’s a strange one.” The man politely asked Alast to move out into the open. When the boy didn’t immediately obey he tapped the sheath hanging from his steed’s saddle and asked again, just as politely. Alast obeyed. All eyes turned towards him. The man that had questioned the headless creature had his steed tiptoe over to Alast.
Dumb as he was, Alast saw that the man before him was the leader of the group. What a burden it must be, Alast thought, to be seen as a leader wherever you go. Leader of the Inn where you try to sleep. Leader of the men around you. Leader of the stones you step on to cross the river. The man was 160 washes old (Blaine’s note: I think that’s about forty-four years.) His eyes didn’t shine like the dark man’s, but they pierced like a harpoon. All the hair had gone from the top of his head, but his big blocky teeth were wreathed by a full brown beard. He had a nose like a wedge of wood stuck under a door a thousand times.
The day was warm, but he was dressed like it was much colder. He had long black riding gloves with metal knuckles, boots of a hide the boy had never seen, a green vest coated in chainmail, and a puffy green fur cape so thick around the shoulders that it buried his ears. There were two sheathed objects on either side of his steed that were so strange to Alast he wasn’t sure they were weapons. One was some sort of club with a rounded end and the other looked like a sword except for a strange bulge in the middle of the blade that also gave the whole thing a curved shape like the leg of a jumping grass bug. The last thing he noticed was a simple necklace around the man’s neck, like a small building block of clear glass.
Alast’s awe made him appear even more confused. He’d never seen a man so composed, so obviously in control of his situation. This was a man who didn’t care about losing trails in the dust because he could just make new ones. Orbon was mistaken when he tried to direct the boy to a place of food and shelter. This man before Alast was his oasis: a bastion of direction, purpose, and knowledge. Alast’s legs quivered. He could think of nothing to say; he barely had the presence of mind to breathe.
“What’s with his clothes? They’re flushed peculiar,” one of the riders said. Alast’s clothes were designed to alleviate the moisture of the mists, so in the dry air they had wrinkled and shrunk to the point where he looked like a toddler who’d outgrown his pajamas.
“Those are mist clothes,” the man in charge stated. He looked at Alast without blinking. He knows about the mist. He’ll think I’m useless, that the wind blew me out here like a stray cloud. “What’s your name boy?”
“Surname?” the man asked.
“I… I don’t understand.”
“Your second name boy. Your family name. What is it? Roary here will give you some water if you start making sense.” The man gestured to a blonde boy only a few washes older than Alast; the boy tapped a sloshing bag on the side of his mount. Alast licked his lips. He wanted to give a second name, but his mind was too tired to even make one up.
“It’s just Alast sir. I don’t have a second name.”
“Well what is your father’s name?” he asked.
“And his father’s name?”
“Do you mean to tell me that in your family they just keep rearranging the letters of the same name?”
“I… I never thought about it that way,” Alast admitted. It was true. He decided to keep the names of his great grandfather and his great great grandfather, Taals and Lasat, to himself. Four of the six riders and the headless man named Dlak laughed at him. So the headless creature did understand me and he attacked anyway! Only the man in charge and the woman didn’t smile. The leader scrutinized Alast for a few silent drips.
“Give him some water Roary,” he ordered. The blonde boy dismounted, opened the skin, and poured some water into a metal cup. Alast took it and drank greedily. If he’d been more relaxed he might have noticed all the subtle differences from the water he’d grown up around. Even served in an iron cup it tasted less metallic. It was somehow naturally chilled as well. Even though his mind demanded he drink until there was no more water in the world, Alast restrained himself and set the last few sips on the ground for Finick to lap up. Roary smiled at Alast, like he was finding a pet of his own, and brought him some more water. While he drank the leader turned back to Dlak for an argument that was far more important than anything involving Alast.
“Did you really think you could take Second and not get caught out here?” he asked Dlak. “I felt it in my bones the very drip it was on the floor. I was practically walking crooked. What was your plan? Steal it out from under Yugo’s chin and sell it back to him?”
“Vryp mah shyltrr ta,” Dlak said. “Huld dahnarda gran schnuz ban mahgraeda absgung pry mah shrup Duc yp ta.”
“If you’re protecting it then I’m a cross-eyed serpont. Gather up your belongings and get out of here.”
“Mah drr-muh lybrr-graau geh ta! Nrly shyv mahda byt-byt. Mah clyym ta.”
“Oh shut your navel Dlak. We both know you don’t have a heart to spear. I’m taking Cardinal Second back with me and that’s that. Since you’ve technically helped keep it out of Yugo’s hands, I’ll let you leave without even stealing what actually belongs to you. Get going.”
“Dahnarda bink mahgraeda brynd nar-byng,” Dlak growled as he picked up his splintered weapon and ripped the arrow from it.
“Fine. Kohlr, give him a reasonable sum to replace his weapon.” One of the riders dug into a saddle bag and pulled out a handful of rectangular coins. “Ahh… a little less reasonable Mr. Kohlr.” The man dumped a few coins back into the bag and handed the rest to Dlak. The headless man swiped them out of his palm and stalked off, swearing into his tent while he broke it down. The leader turned back to Alast, who was wiping the water off his face with a sleeve. “What are you doing out here anyway?” he asked.
“I fled the mist,” Alast admitted. “Someone I trust warned me that an army was coming. An army of prothils, erh, proliths. That was it. proliths.”
“And you left your home and your family just like that?”
“I’m not stupid sir. I know when danger’s coming.”
“And your family?”
“They were stupid.”
“And how did this person you trust know the invasion was coming?”
“Something called an ekapad sir.” Again there was snickering.
“An ekapad is a creature boy; they are trained to deliver mail. Anyway, you were right to leave. That army belongs to a fiend named Yugo Legendr. He’s probably tearing apart Metal Block right now looking for that.” He pointed at Cardinal Second. “And he’ll kill anyone in his way.” Alast blinked. “Aren’t you concerned for your family?”
“I find it hard to care about people who won’t help themselves,” Alast said coldly.
“I feel the same way,” the man said. “Where are my manners? Let me introduce myself. Better yet, let Roary introduce me.”
“Aye Captain,” the blonde boy said and took up position next to his leader. “I present to you, you funny burned pajama boy, the occasionally honorable but always impressive Captain Kilrobin Ordr: commander of the Third Sink vessel the Greedy Old Mop, pirate extra-extraordinaire, of the line of Oath Suspectr, of the line of Custodian Kilroy Ordr, and the only living master of bone picking.”
“What’s bone picking?” Alast asked.
“We don’t have time to explain the entire world to you,” the Captain said. “For now you can call me Captain Rob. That’s my First Mate Teal Powdr,” he pointed to the dark-haired woman, “that’s our musician Mr. Herc Monickr,” his finger crossed over the dark man with the bright eyes, “these are a few of my crew, Mr. Nayth Kohlr and Mr. Jopalish Crabittr…”
“And I’m Kilroary Ordr,” the blonde boy said. “I’m the Captain’s nephew.”
“You’re also the cabin boy,” the Captain clarified.
“I don’t think so Captain,” Roary said, his smile growing ridiculously huge. “No I think Alast Nonamr here be our cabin boy now.” Alast didn’t know what to say. He was afraid they might just dig a hole and bury him in it if he asked what a cabin boy was.
“Nonsense,” Captain Rob said. “You’re an excellent cabin boy Roary; why would we need a new one?”
“Well that be the problem Captain,” Roary rushed to explain, the desperation obvious in his voice. He ran over to Alast and rubbed his shoulders. “I’m too good at it. I keep everything so clean that it makes the crew uncomfortable. They’re pirates you see; they like things a bit grimy and messy. I make them feel like they’re staying at the fanciest inn in Porce and that just don’t sit right with them. Making everything stainless might be right for your quarters and all your scientific equipment Captain, but the crew don’t want that. Right men?”
“I think I remember saying something to that effect,” Herc said with a sly smile.
“There it be Captain! Discontent among your crew! You can’t have that! We need this new cabin boy! He be too dim to clean as well as me; he’ll be perfect.”
“Then what am I to do with you dear nephew?” Rob asked sarcastically.
“Well Captain,” Roary said with a shrug, “I suppose you’ll have to promote me. I have been cleaning the Mop for ten washes. I know every bubble of her length like the pruned tips of me own fingers.”
“You’ve forgotten to ask the boy what he wants,” Teal interrupted. Her voice was much deeper than Alast had expected, deeper than his own in fact.
“I don’t need to Miss Powdr,” Roary assured her. “I can tell.” Roary stepped in front of Alast and looked into his eyes. The blonde boy looked nearly mad with determination. “Look at his eyes! He be rudderless. He be confused and alone and in desperate need of a livelihood. He can have mine. I don’t mind one bit.”
“What do you say Alast?” Captain Rob asked. Alast looked at Cardinal Second. The sight of that mystical rock had pulled him out of the desert and into their midst. It had saved his life. It had given him more guidance than his father ever had. It showed the way. Now it’s my responsibility, Alast thought, relishing the idea of a purpose he could choose for himself. I can look after it the way it looked after me. It can show me more of this world.
“I go wherever that stone goes,” he declared. “I feel I am meant to be its caretaker. We were both moved from the Metal Block. In the same direction no less! Our fates are intertwined. If you’re taking the stone I absolutely must go with you.”
“You would help us see it returned to its home?” the Captain asked.
“I would sir. This is my mission.”
“Be careful about making promises like that boy. Porce likes to rub your face in promises. The stone, Cardinal Second as it is called, can’t be returned to Metal Block until Yugo’s army has left. We will take it with us for now.”
“Then I am your new cabin boy,” Alast said. He tried to puff out his chest, but the effort only bent him forward into a bow.
“He said it!” Roary roared. “You’re all witnesses. He be officially the cabin boy. I am not.”
“Just a drip. He has to take the oath,” Rob said. “Alast please kneel before me.” Alast got down on one knee. “Not just one knee. Both of them.”
“Isn’t that groveling rather than kneeling?” Alast asked.
“You’re making both a correction and an excellent suggestion. Grovel before me.” Alast dropped his other knee. “Do you, Alast Nonamr, pledge your service and your life to your Captain? Will you heed him in all things? Will you spill your own guts before you mutiny?”
“Yes Captain,” Alast declared.
“Say aye,” Roary whispered.
“Aye Captain,” Alast blurted.
“Excellent. We’ll be off then. Back to Third Sink. Kohlr, Crabittr, tie up the tile. Roary, help Alast get settled in for the ride. He’s your responsibility. If he wets himself you have to clean it up.”
Alast got to his feet. Spots appeared in his vision from the sudden movement. Don’t pass out now, he thought. You’ve got a lot of impressing to do. And you have to learn. No sleeping until you know what animal you’re riding. Until you know why the stone floats. Until you know what bone picking and proliths and ekapads are. You have to learn first. Food and sleep can wait. Alast scooped up Finick in his arms and followed Roary to the riding animal. From there they started to ride back towards Second Wall. Alast looked over his shoulder to watch the headless man Dlak shrink into the distance. Alast was certain he was yelling obscenities even though he couldn’t understand them.
The animal moved so quickly; it created a breeze that caressed his scalp and cheeks. Its balanced bounding rocked him back and forth smoothly. He fell asleep upright, face pressed against Roary’s back.
“Sleep it off now Misty. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
A Questing Beast is Born
Alast made his promise to return Cardinal Second in the midst of the gravelly plains of the Shattered Tiles. Something stirred in the corner of Porce furthest from that. A route from the Shattered Tiles towards First Door would take one from the gravel deserts and into the rich mountainous lands of the tilefolk: the Cracked Tiles. If one then crossed their ancient and still fertile farms they would find the Black Gap, the mysteries of which have driven countless numbers mad. A smart one would veer from the gap, toward either Second Wall or Fourth Wall.
The thing that stirred was even beyond Fourth Wall, above it. Past the Dry Rin Cliff. Through the last peninsula of the Threewall Wild and into the Brighted Plains. Alast had only recently learned that life extended to the walls, but the World Roof was no different. Trees managed to live, upside down to many, on its periphery. The heat and light of the florent made life near the roof’s center impossible. The only signs of civilization around it were the Brighted Gates, and they were in disrepair long before the mist boy’s birth.
The thing stirred near the corner connecting First Wall, Fourth Wall, and the World Roof, as far from Alast as possible. The furthest shadow ever cast. The shadow of the questing beast.
A single bubble the size of a tear appeared on the surface of a scum-filled pond. It burst. Pwip. The loudest sound in rests. It echoed through the crooked trees of the swamp like an explosion. Leaves fell, arcing in the windless air to land as far from the pond as possible. All was quiet again, but the swamp would not get a chance to recover from the trauma. A second bubble appeared, mercilessly stretching the water to its breaking point. Pwop. It was even quieter and louder than the first. The tree nearest the pond shattered in the middle and was blasted away by the shockwave. The ground quaked to the point of stillness.
Pwip. Pwip. Two more bubbles exploded, sending droplets of water to the edge of the pond and ancient logs, buried for a hundred washes, flying through the air like terrified birds. Stones sank in fear, certain no amount of dirt overhead could save them.
Pwop, Pwop, Pwop. The stream of bubbles intensified. If the frothing continued there wouldn’t be much of Porce left. The stream moved away from the center of the pond. A shape formed underneath it as it neared the murky edge. A clawed foot, so fresh to life that the nails were softer than fat, sank into the mud as it tried to push its immense minnow-sized bulk out of the water. A sickle-like claw, hardly longer than the arm of a scythe bug and paler than the ghost of the last wash’s snowfall, broke the surface. Clouds fled the sight of it, tumbling over each other and creating storms in their panic. Lightning crackled and bent away from the pond.
Its hideous head emerged from the water and it took its first putrid ragged breath. It devoured the helpless air. The creature never exhaled, never freed its prisoners. It just kept breathing in, gasping over and over as it rested on the muddy edge of its scum-encrusted womb. Its eyes were unfocused, rolled into the back of its head so that they appeared empty. The beast had only one goal and so could glare at that goal and nothing else. If it wanted to see it would have to turn in the direction of its prey and then never turn back.
At first the beast would not accept that it had to leave the safety of the murk. It just gasped for days: in, in, in, in. Against its will, its body grew stronger. Its claws hardened from pale gel into brown knives. Its mouth widened and flattened into a plant-like maw. Needle teeth sprung up from its gums overnight and interlocked like an animal trap. Brown fur grew on its frail knobby back, its sharp elbows, and its bulbous knees. It started making sounds separate from its breathing, terrible guttural sputterings that wrinkled leaves and soured the mud beneath it.
It didn’t want to move, but instinct told it that something was coming to destroy its pond. It needed to move to live, and it needed to live to hunt. The last tree in the swamp fell as it rose to its four wobbly legs. It used the sickles on its front legs like walking sticks to pull the rest of its body forward one limb at a time. It turned around so the pupils of its eyes could finally stop staring at its own brown membranes. They shrank and focused in on the prey. It could not see its prey in the traditional sense, not yet, but the trail was there. The creature followed it away from the pond, shaking the last of the green scum from its back.
In the time it took for the creature to clear the borders of the swamp, a hundred different predators could have made it their meal. The birds overhead avoided it. The haunds ignored its scent. Deadly slorths sometimes walked right over it, touching it with nothing but their shadows. They knew not to interfere. Eating a questing beast was like trying to eat the autumn or drink sleep. A natural impossibility. Only one living thing in all Porce could kill it and turn it into food.
The creature came to a tree in the middle of its path. By this time it had grown to the height of a man’s ankle. Its jaws were now strong enough to separate said ankle from the body. The tree in front of it was not very wide. Its trunk was ringed and ragged and warped, but it grew so tall into the sky that the creature could not see the top of it. It could not look to the left. It could not move its claws one bubble to the right. The only path was straight ahead. The creature struck the tree with one sickle and peeled a tiny piece of bark away. It tried again. And again. The fourth time its claw caught firm in the flesh of the tree. Then the other claw. Then it was pulling itself off the ground and up the trunk. Up and over was the only way. The prey had done it, so the beast could too.
Its progress up the tree was painful and slow. After the first day it felt like every bone in its body was splitting down the middle. Its marrow screamed and begged it to stop pulling its way up, but the beast lacked the capacity to make excuses. Its mind had none of the fluffy clouds of the minds of folk: no doubt, no denial, no pride, no ignorance, no love. The creature was determination; it had to push through every bit of pain the prey had felt. It had to forge itself in the same ways in order to capture it. It was the natural order of Porce since the day the god of balance had decreed it.
When it reached the top it couldn’t halt to gaze at the florent or rest in the leaves. It could only aim its wide toothy maw down and start the descent where it would feel all the pain again but in reverse. When it was finally back on the ground it collapsed for just a moment, the toll on its body overwhelming it for a drip. It had gone all of three foams from where it had first stood on the other side of the tree. The prey must have been such a fool to undertake a journey like that by choice.
The next day a downpour struck the creature and washed it into a gully. It tried to march forward through the water even as it rose over its head, but wound up with its claw stuck between two stones. No bubbles rose from the creature. It gasped and took in water. It drowned but did not die. Its breathing stopped until the water receded. Even as fresh morning air struck its head it could not expel the water from its drowning. The pocket of liquid was sealed in its body by thick membranes and separated from its air sacs. The bulge of water created a swollen lump on the left side of its gut. It sloshed painfully whenever the creature took a step. A new pain to add to its collection. A new reason to end the prey; they must be feeling the same pain.
Eventually the questing beast found a flat stone upon the ground, square in shape and very smooth. Its corners gripped the beast’s mind, vexing it to no end. It had to find and destroy the prey, but it also had no choice but to carry the stone. The creature shoved its snout under the stone and laboriously wiggled and rolled the muscles in its back until the stone was settled on its shoulders. It was heavier than anticipated. The creature marched forward, stabbing the ground as it went. It breathed in. The prey was still far.
Akers at Both Ends
Laggeren, Alast reminded himself. The creatures we’re riding are called Laggeren. He was doing his best to remember everything Roary shouted back to him while their party crossed the gravel deserts. The Captain’s nephew wasn’t making it easy on him; for every three truths he told, he told one lie just to see if Alast could catch it. The mist-grown boy did his best to separate fact from fiction.
The headless man… his name was Dlak Garbr. He was a mercenary. He was tilefolk. Tilefolk have no heads and hairy bodies and they mostly speak that language. What did they call it? Pawtymouth. Tilefolk mostly speak Pawtymouth. My language has a name too doesn’t it? Yes, it’s Wide Porcian. I speak Wide Porcian, which I have to remember because there are several ways to talk. Do they think differently? Where do all those other words come from? Don’t know yet…
There are other types of people. There’s us: lightfolk. There’s the tilefolk. Roary said there was a bergfolk too. They look different still. Are the proliths a people? Don’t know yet… That man, Jopalish, he said something about a gravefolk. Roary shushed him. They don’t want to tell me what gravefolk are. I don’t know what could be worse than headless men.
They traveled for several days, stopping to make camp exactly one drop before the florent went out; Alast was unsure how they measured the time so precisely. He and Finick shared a tent with Roary. Kohlr, Monickr, and Crabittr shared one, while the Captain and his First Mate shared the one that was twice as large. Roary trained Alast and Finick simultaneously, rewarding Finick with splinters of wood when he performed a trick and rewarding Alast with slices of a warty purple fruit called a loosh whenever he remembered the answer to questions like ‘What be a loosh?’
“What be the name of the ship you’ll be scrubbing?” Roary quizzed. He held up a piece of fruit and waited.
“The Greedy Old Mop,” Alast answered correctly. He reached out to grab the loosh, but Roary held it back. Alast sighed and opened his mouth. Roary tossed it in. He chewed and swallowed, the indignity lessened by its silky sweet taste.
“That be a good Misty. Now what be it we do aboard the Greedy Old Mop?”
“We sail the sea of Third Sink, sometimes called the Snyre Sea. We trap and trade for wealth and knowledge.”
“That be correct,” Roary said. He patted Finick’s stomach and fed him a splinter after he rolled over. Alast hated himself a little for wanting to beat his own haund at the game. “Now, what be it that you specifically will be doing aboard the Mop?”
“Cleaning, obeying my superior sailors, cleaning, staying out of the way, and cleaning,” Alast recited.
“Good; I think you even remembered the order what I said them in!” He tossed another piece and hit an unprepared Alast in the eye.
“You missed. Does that mean I get to ask you a question?” Roary pretended to think hard on the proposition. He leaned back on his sleeping hides with his hands behind his head and stared into the top of the tent.
“Seems you’ve earned it,” he finally granted.
“What is The Gross Truth?” he asked. He’d wanted to know ever since overhearing it from merchants a rest ago. Orbon would never say, but a pirate probably had the bravery to tell him. Roary didn’t answer for several drips.
“I wondered if you knew,” he said flatly. “I should probably let the Captain explain it to you. If I tell you, you’re liable to get cross with me. You can’t get cross with the Captain or he’ll feed you to something big. Might even just eat you hisself.”
“Why would I get cross?” Alast probed.
“People just do when they’re not raised knowing it like I was. If they accept it they have to accept they were fools their whole lives. It be easier to get cross and become a papist or something.”
“Spiritual folks. People what read the same book over and over. You know what a god is Misty?”
“Some people have them back in the mist,” Alast said. “Something powerful. You pray to it and hope it gives you what you need.”
“Close enough,” Roary said. “There are lots of stories about gods in Porce. Nobody really knows if any of them be true. The papists got this old book called the Toil Papers; it be where the name comes from: paper to papists see? It talks about their god; he be called the Spotless because he can’t get dirty. I mean dirty like his spirit can’t get dirty. He don’t sin. No lies. No stealing. No killing. Anyway they worship him instead of admitting The Gross Truth be there.”
“If you don’t tell me what it is I’ll become a papist right now,” Alast threatened. Roary smiled, unconvinced.
“I already know you’re not the sort. You joined up with pirates like us just for a gulp of water. You’re the type what wants to have a little fun in your life.”
“About that,” Alast started. He bit his lip. Now that the haze of dehydration was gone he was having some second thoughts about joining up with what he now realized were merely floating thieves. “We’re not an evil sort are we? All I mean is… we don’t rob little old ladies do we?”
“We might rob a mean little old lady,” Roary speculated. “Don’t get too many of them out on the Snyre though. Don’t worry your bald little head Misty; you’ll be too busy scrubbing to do any of the thieving.”
“We don’t… we don’t kill people do we?” Roary sat back up. Finick took it as a cue to jump in his lap and curl up. He ignored the animal.
“Listen,” he ordered, grabbing Alast’s ear to make sure his point went down it smoothly. “Sometimes killing needs to be done. There are weeds walking around these walls with sabers that’ll cut you soon as look at you. You’re not a man until you can do a killing that needs to be done. I bet the idea scares you, puts feathers in your mouth. You need to swallow that down and get over it. Lucky for you, the Captain makes all those decisions. He can be wrong, but he be never wrong about that.” Kilroary released Alast’s earlobe and put his head back to the ground. He picked up Finick by the waist and bounced him playfully, the creature’s tongue lolling up and down as he panted.
“Have you ever killed anyone?” Alast asked.
“Go to sleep Misty,” Roary said as he rolled over.
“It’s not even dark yet,” he complained. Roary held up three fingers and counted down. When he hit one the florent went out. How do they do that? Don’t know yet…
It was on the next day of riding that Alast had his strangest encounter yet. They were rapidly approaching the white stone edge of Third Sink and Alast was wondering how dark the day would be once they were under it. Before they got there, there was one ornery obstacle that needed crossing. Their party stopped in the middle of nowhere. Alast assumed it was just to water the animals, but the Captain huddled up with his First Mate and they discussed something in whispers. Roary took one look at their discussion and then ordered Alast to help him unfold one of the hide tents.
“What do we need it for?” Alast asked.
“We’re getting close to an aker Misty. It be not like anything you’ve laid eyes on before. It be a beast you don’t want to cross, but we have to cross it anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“Grab that corner. I mean the akers aren’t animals… and they aren’t land. They’re both. We need to cross over this one or we’d have to take a detour what would have our animals starving before we could get through it. We’re to use this tent to cover Cardinal Second.”
“Why do we need to do that?”
“Because,” the Captain interrupted. He took the tent from them and held it like a deceased child. “The cardinal tiles were crafted from the bodies of fallen akers. We don’t exactly know how one might react to the corpse of another being dragged across it, but we’re not taking any chances. We’ll cover the tile and hope the aker doesn’t notice. Alast, you will walk behind the tile and pretend you’re carrying it. Maybe the aker won’t notice its peculiar hover.”
“How dangerous is the aker Captain?” Alast asked.
“They’ve been around since before the tiles cracked. In fact at the core of every tile there was an aker. Their numbers are smaller now. If they spoke they could tell you about wars that played out across their own backs. Conflicts that showered them in blood. They don’t have to be dangerous though, not if you show the proper respect.”
“How do we do that?” the boy asked.
“With this,” Teal said. Alast turned and watched her pull a swollen melon out from a saddlebag; it was so big that she could barely carry it. Its light green rind and dark green spots were foreign to Alast, but it smelled as sweet as a field of flowers blooming on top of each other. The scent made his stomach swirl and growl with jealousy. One of the laggeren sniffed at it and the Captain smacked its nose away. It barked at him and bared its buck teeth as if to say, I had to carry it and I don’t even get a bite?
Alast helped the Captain toss the tent over Cardinal Second and hide its corners under the folds. He put both his hands to the side of the object and leaned into it to push it forward. The rest of the party re-mounted their laggeren and they continued forward at a very slow pace. The Captain insisted it was best not to startle the aker.
Herc pulled up alongside Alast and started digging around in one of his saddlebags. He pulled out a board of green wood two foams long with a handle. It had eight depressions lined with glass and a few brass knobs. Mr. Monickr skillfully placed the board on his shoulder, holding it in place with his left hand, and opened his canteen with his right. He poured varying amounts of liquid into the glass cups. Alast nearly tripped three times as he watched the man work. Herc wetted the fingers of his right hand and began testing the notes of his instrument by running his fingers around the rim of each glass. They each produced a beautiful note that swam down Alast’s ears and rippled in the base of his neck.
“That’s an instrument? I’ve never heard its like before. We had rain drums back in the mist,” he grunted as he tried to keep hold of the covered tile, remembering the splashing bangs of his hometown’s prayer day percussions. Herc pretended he had just noticed Alast and smiled. He played a quick campfire song. Roary and Nayth hummed along, occasionally laughing as they remembered the jokey lyrics.
“It’s called a Sybil’s bath,” Herc said when he completed the song. “Very old instrument. You need it for very old songs.”
“The aker doesn’t mind the music?” Alast asked.
“Only the opposite; akers love music. Their ears only stay open for the traditional songs, so you must never whistle or sing around them if you don’t know when the tune was born. I brought this out to help appease the one we’re about to cross.”
“Does it have a name?”
“I’m sure it does, but it would never tell us. The only thing it wants is respect. The music tells it we haven’t forgotten Porce’s history. We haven’t forgotten the ground they plowed. I’m going to play it a song called Oath to Squares. It goes like this.” Herc ran his finger along the glass once again, producing slower and deeper notes than before. Alast felt like he was hearing them in the soles of his feet. As the song went on Herc’s voice joined the notes:
Under the nose of Kil and between the lines of Stall,
We march until our feet are bone and floors become the Wall,
Kil sneezes us away
Kil sneezes us away
He toils not for us
He toils for hisself
He tricks to cuss,
Us out to get the fuss,
From the ladies who love it all
Kil sneezes us away
Kil sneezes us away
One day we’ll have a trick of our own,
A trick that gets us on the Wall
“That’s wonderful and I don’t know what any of it means,” Alast said. Herc’s singing made him feel like he was part of the song, like the sight of him in the musician’s eyes would somehow be woven into the notes and repeated whenever the song came out of any lips, horns, or strings. That dark Kil, Alast thought. Always playing tricks on us.
“I’ve never crossed this aker before,” Herc added. “I hope it’s not one of the deaf ones. Then it might think we’re making fun of it.” The musician smiled again and rode forward to leave Alast wondering whether or not he was joking.
It first appeared in the distance as a black speck, not unlike how Alast had first seen Second. They entered a grassy area that the Captain told him was the result of the aker fertilizing the land. Alast had never seen so much dry grass before, so he bent down and ran his fingers through it. To him it felt like the land was expressing its joy, growing bright soft tendrils to let everything else know it was comfortable. It didn’t need anything else.
The black speck grew into a shape like a tree. Herc started his song again, playing it even slower than before. Everyone in the party except Rob cast their eyes down toward the necks of their laggeren. Alast was torn between observing the creature and bowing in deference. Even with Knobby, giant haunds, and tilefolk fresh in his mind, he was not prepared for such an unusual beast.
Its snout was long, flat, and full of blunt cone-shaped teeth locked into each other. Its skin was a deep black that did not change shade as its head tapered back into two spiraling horns long as boat oars. Even the surface of its tiny unblinking eyes was black. Its neck was muscular and long like a riding animal, but with none of the pulsing veins or fleshy twitches. Two giant limbs bent at the knee rested their clawed hooves in front of the animal. Shrubs and vines grew around the hooves and spiraled up its arms. Fluttering bugs with round green wings landed on its face. Some crawled into its nostrils and over its open eyes. As far as Alast could tell it was a statue. If it had ever been alive it seemed to have since passed away and turned into a shrunken dry root inside its own stony black shell.
Its shoulders and back sank into the ground, giving it the appearance of trying to extricate itself from a pit. Instead of a pit, there was only ground covered in lush vegetation and thick waxy leaves that bobbed in the breeze. Tributaries of stone poured between its shoulder blades and connected with the ground so Alast could not see where the aker ended and Porce began. He tried to listen for its breath, but heard only the rustling of grass. Maybe that is its breath…
The party dismounted before it. Its head loomed twenty foams above them. The party, save the Captain and Teal, bowed. Alast copied them and tried to pull the tile down so it looked like he was still holding it, but Second did not draw any closer to the ground. Teal passed the melon to Captain Rob and then took to her knee as well. Alast glanced up and saw Rob, somehow, holding the melon aloft with one hand. His First Mate was not a stringy woman, and she had been stomping as if with twistenhooves under the fruit’s weight. Herc played his song more quietly to allow the Captain’s voice to subtly take over.
“Aker,” the Captain began, his voice deep and reverent. “Creature of Porce older than I. Creature of Porce older than my line. We are travelers and we desire permission to cross your mighty back. I would use your name, but I must admit I do not know it. I fear I could not even pronounce it, pregnant as each syllable would be with your rich history. All I can offer is my man’s oldest melody and this fine ripe fruit. If you will allow us to cross, please accept it.”
At first nothing happened. The bugs kept circling lazily. The florent started to scratch at Alast’s raw neck once again. One of the laggeren sneezed. Then the aker’s mouth silently fell open. There was a sound like a very old tree bowing as its neck swung low enough for Rob to place the melon between the ends of its jaws. The creature took the melon from him and raised its neck back up. Its jaws clamped shut, splitting the melon into a hundred pieces. A stream of pink juice filled with bits of rind fell from its lips, towards the Captain’s bald head. Before it could reach him there was a strange sound like clouds shrinking. Shfwin! All the juice was sucked back up into the aker’s mouth and down its obsidian gullet. In an instant it was as if the melon had never existed. The aker ceased moving. Alast expected some other sign, not a thank you, but something. Instead he got silence.
“We have permission,” the Captain inferred. The party returned to the backs of their animals and slowly traveled under one of the creature’s arching limbs and onto its back. When they were far enough into the field of its body, Alast felt safe to quietly ask Roary questions.
“Do akers have surnames?”
“No Misty,” Roary said with a snort. “They be older than surnames. They had their choice among the first names. Only things born in the Age of Building need surnames.”
“Maybe I don’t have a surname because my family is really old,” Alast wondered out loud. He had the feeling that was too good to be true.
“No, it seems like your folks just forgot they had them. Don’t fret, we already gave you one. Nonamr. It be the finest surname used by former slaves and any of the First Toil savages that manage to skitter their way into polite society.”
“Could I choose my own surname?”
“You can, but you’re liable to get laughed at. I’d be the first one laughing too. If you want to set up your own line you’ll be needing a name what be connected to a great achievement. A surname be a monument to bravery or cunning or bedding ten thousand women or something of that sort. Or maybe a giant woman.”
“Would returning Cardinal Second to Metal Block count?”
“Aye, I believe it would; it being out of place be enough to throw off the world’s compasses. You don’t get the name if you die on the way though. You’d just have yourself a nice Nonamr headstone.”
“Quiet,” Teal ordered. All of the laggeren stopped. The ground stretched upward almost imperceptibly. The pebbles beneath the plants shifted slightly. The leaves on the shrubs bobbed a bit harder. Alast sniffed. The flowers around already smelled like the melon. He dared not speak until one of the others opened their mouth. They waited, still as the aker’s head, for nearly a half-drop. The ground lowered back to its old position.
“We’re fine,” the Captain said and waved the party forward. The laggeren seemed a touch wary of continuing. They tapped the ground in front of them once with every step before applying their weight. Their nose twitches quickened.
“What was that Miss Powdr?” Alast asked.
“The aker was breathing. They don’t do it very often,” she said. She turned and looked over her shoulder at the beast’s head in the distance. Alast looked as well; it didn’t appear to have moved.
“You’ve got to be careful when it be sucking in air,” Roary said, doing his best to embellish Teal’s concise explanation. “First thing be you need to be away from their mouths or you might get sucked right down their throats.” Roary stuck out his tongue and made a sucking sound. “And if you disturb them they might cough. Makes a dust storm it does. They can last a whole day.”
“I got lost in a cloud of dust,” Alast said. “That’s how I found Second.”
“Is that so? Maybe you owe this fine aker your new lot in life.”
“He gave it a melon; he doesn’t owe it nothing,” Jopalish said.
“Quiet!” Teal and the Captain seethed at the same time. The ground rose. The bushes shivered as if ready-to-pounce haunds were nestled inside them. They waited again. It felt much longer to Alast this time. His ankles were becoming very stiff. He worried that if they stayed much longer his feet would put down roots and he would never escape the florent’s hot gaze. His head would crack and split until he looked like a scab on the aker’s spine. Finally, the ground returned to its normal elevation.
“Two breaths in as many drops. Something’s not right. I think we left the seat up on this one Captain,” Nayth said. “I can see the other end from here. We should bolt for it.”
Alast looked past the tile to see what this ‘other end’ looked like. He thought perhaps a black stone tail would mark the end of the creature’s body, but instead he saw something that looked nearly identical to the head they had passed on the way in.
“It has two heads?” he whispered to Roary.
“Of course,” Roary answered. “Otherwise you could just sneak across them the back way and they’d be none the wiser. The heads talk to each other, so this one knows we’re coming.”
First a man with no head and now a strip of land with two heads. Do the creatures of Porce just swap heads for fun and lose track of their own? Whatever I do I’ve got to remember to keep mine on my shoulders. Can’t let it out of my sight even for a drip or it’ll run off with some other stronger set of shoulders.
“Teal are you sure that melon wasn’t rotten?” the Captain asked.
“And it wasn’t premature either?”
“You ever have one breathe twice while you were crossing?”
“Oh well that’s just piss on us then.”
The ground rumbled. Pebbles popped up into the air, terrifying the laggeren into screaming. Huurreeeeenk! Eeenk Eeenk! Herc’s animal bucked forward and bumped Alast, pushing Cardinal Second out of his hands and into the air. Its tent cover flew off and spiraled to the ground. The ground shook so violently that Alast could barely stay on his feet. He felt the aker’s pulse turn into quivering anger and spread through his bones, making his teeth chatter and every follicle on his burnt head itch.
They heard the sound of Porce ripping. A slab of stone and soil curled away from the rest of the ground and towards them. The first head of the aker sat in the middle of the slab, looking impossibly tiny against its own immense flat bulk. The slab curled and rose, curled and rose. Soon it would be directly over them, blocking out the florent. Loose plants and rocks lost their grip on its back and started raining down in a rapidly approaching wave.
“Ride!” the Captain ordered. The laggeren took off towards the second head; Teal scooped Alast up off the ground and onto the back of her animal. He couldn’t help but spin around in the saddle and watch the downpour of dirt coming to bury them alive. It’s the dust storm. It has come back to get me because it missed the first time. The darkness of the curled land crossed over the laggeren’s haunches… their shoulders… the tips of their noses… Dirt poured down the back of Alast’s neck. He hugged a whimpering Finick between his chest and Teal’s back. A shrub struck Roary in the face; he spat it out and yelled to the Captain that they weren’t going to make it.
“We’ll make it as long as…” Rob started, but then plumes of dust appeared around the second head’s shoulders. There was another sound of stones splitting. Craaauuuhck! The second head opened its mouth towards the sky and bellowed, kicking its clawed hooves. Their exit started to curve towards them. The ground ahead became another wall of collapsing dirt and hurtling rocks. Alast couldn’t hear anything that was being shouted over the collisions of the curling slabs and their debris. The chances of them being flattened rose by the drip, but they pressed on. The path of the laggeren angled up. Alast held onto Teal’s waist tightly as he felt gravitation start to pull him backward. The animals grunted and slowed as the hill before them became steeper and steeper.
“We won’t get over in time!” Herc shouted. The two ends of the aker were indeed converging too swiftly, like the corners of a book about to clap shut and flatten them into bookmarks.
“All of you turn, head to the right!” the Captain ordered. The crew pulled the reins of their animals hard to the right, sending the laggeren bounding off to the side. The animals still had an extremely difficult time running without tripping on the slanted ground. Alast turned and saw that the Captain had not veered to the new course with them; his animal continued up the steep climb toward the aker’s second head.
“The Captain!” he shouted to Teal.
“He’s fine!” she shouted back. “He’s buying us some time!” The Captain’s animal faltered. At this point it was attempting to climb a nearly vertical wall of tangled roots and loose soil. It started to fall back towards the bent middle. Rob pulled both his weapons from their sheaths and stepped on his laggeren’s forehead to get one final boost. The creature whined in terror and fell down into the dark curving ground below. His leap was beyond the ability of a man with standard mortality; he flew straight up through the crevice of the joining ends of the aker before they smashed into each other with the deafening clap of rock on rock. When he finally started to descend he thrust his sword downward, towards the shoulder of the second head.
His feet never touched it; instead he held his body in the air with all his weight perfectly focused into the tip of his sword. A normal blade would have snapped under the pressure, but this was a bonepicker’s sword. Its shape absorbed his energy like a leg bending in preparation of a leap. He sprang back into the air. Kwing! His flying body became even with the aker’s eye. Rob thrusted his second weapon, a humble-looking club, towards the stone pupil. Again the nature of his weapons granted him great power; it was a bonepicker’s jump club. An iron ball encased in the end of the club shot forward with all the force Rob pushed into it. It struck the end of the weapon, pulling its length forward just enough bubbles to strike the surface of the aker’s eye. The black stone cracked. The aker’s roar rang in everyone’s ears.
The two ends of the aker began to scrape past each other, creating an enclosed tube of land. Alast and the others could only keep riding towards the hole at the end of the tube as it shrank. The boy looked behind him and saw the Captain’s animal desperately trying to catch up with the rest of the group. The fear in its liquid black eyes was unlike anything Alast had ever seen. He almost wished the mist would return and hide its terror from him. His mind turned back to his own life as the stone seam overhead continued to close behind them. He hated that all he could do was count the drips until they were safe or crushed. The circle before them shrank. The light funneling through it became weaker as an avalanche of soil blocked out the florent’s rays. Please make it. Please. Please!
Crabittr and Kohlr broke through the veil of dirt. Then Herc, who had snagged the length of rope around Cardinal Second. Then Roary. Then Teal and Alast. Their animals held out their forelimbs as they sailed back to the regular ground nearly twenty foams below. The springy animals nearly collapsed on impact. Alast’s head rocked back and forth painfully with the landing; a javelin of agony thrust its way up the back of his skull. He fell from the animal’s back and scuffed his elbows in the dirt, but at least it was regular dirt. It no longer threatened to swallow him up and grind him right into a fresh grave. Finick scrambled out of his pouch and ran around nervously, barking his objections.
“The animal won’t make it,” Teal said. Alast rolled onto his back and watched the shrinking hole they’d narrowly escaped. He couldn’t quite hear the animal’s whines as it tried to force its body forward, but his imagination created the sounds for him. The innocent creature seemed doomed, but then a shape appeared at the top of the tunnel. At first Alast couldn’t tell what it was because it was spinning so quickly. It looked like a bug with a stinger so long that it encircled its body and enabled it to roll. No… there are two shapes… alternating… it’s the Captain! He’s… spinning? Captain Rob was curled into a tight ball and hurtling along the top of the land tube. When the blade of his sword struck the ground it pulled him forward. An instant later the club hit the ground. Back and forth the weapons acted as his feet, turning him into a wheel that raced towards them with incredible swiftness.
His speed was so great that he caught up to the closing seam and dropped into the shrinking tunnel. Even at that speed there was no hope, but Rob refused to leave any part of his crew behind. He reached his hand out of his tight tuck and grabbed the reins of his struggling laggeren. His legs shot down to the ground and with one mighty push he launched himself and the animal out through the veil of stones and to the ground. The stone tube ground to a close, both ends of the aker bellowing in rage.
Rob’s feet slammed into the ground, leaving a crater in the dust. From where Alast was trembling his fear away, it looked like the Captain was guaranteed to break his legs. Yet he stood as tall as ever, calming the terrified laggeren. Somehow he held it in place by the reins even though the animal should’ve overpowered him. He whispered to it and rubbed its head until its ragged snorting breath became more regular. They heard another crash from the aker as it started to adjust itself.
“We can’t stay here,” Rob said and mounted his animal. He sheathed his weapons and started riding away from the deadly stretch of Porce. Alast scooped up Finick and Teal scooped up Alast. It was some time before Alast returned to his senses enough to ask questions. First he helped himself to several cups of the unnaturally cool water they carried. Then he counted all his fingers and toes to make sure they were still there. It didn’t feel right to him that he escaped with everything intact. Surely his fear had shaken something loose that was left behind and ground into powder. How do they keep this water so cold? Don’t know yet…
“That was incredible!” he gushed when Teal pulled up alongside the Captain. “I have to know Captain! What was that? How did you do all that? And do you offer lessons? I hope you’ve noticed I’m a fast learner.”
“You can’t learn this boy,” Rob crowed. “It’s bonepicking. Greatest of the conflict arts and I’m the only living showman for it.”
“But what is it? How does such magic work?”
“No magic Alast. Magic is fickle and messy business. Bonepicking is science. It relies on an understanding of gravitation.”
“Gravitaiton is the Porcely force that pulls us towards whatever side of the world we’re nearest. It would toss us out into the Dark Empty if it had its way. I can feel the gravitation in my bones and when I exert my will I can force it into specific bones. I can punch with the force of a thousand foam fall. By pulling my bones forward I can run faster and jump higher than any other man. I can slow a fall or change its direction. I can toss my body about like a ragdoll if it suits me or I can balance on the tip of a riding crop.”
“Flickering florent… and you are one hundred percent positive you cannot teach me?” Rob tilted his head back and laughed into the sky. Then he drove his animal into the lead and ushered the party into the shade under Third Sink.
Mop in Bucket
The crew treated Alast to several more astounding sights before they made their way to port. He fell in love with the shade beneath Third Sink, where the days were cool and moist and it never felt like his head was on fire. In fact the first major event of the first day in the shade was when Alast peeled an entire layer of skin from his scalp in a complete piece. He didn’t know what to make of it, this cracked, soft, thin thing, having never had a severe florent burn before. Even with his limited experience of nature his mind overflowed with possibilities: producing silk like a wegger, shedding skin like a serpont, or perhaps the first symptom of a deadly florent-related disease. He woke up Roary to show it to him. The Captain’s nephew slapped him in the face for sticking such a disgusting thing near his eyes and ordered him to throw it out the front of the tent. Only after he did so did Roary bother to tell him he was not dying; his scalp was only healing from its burn.
The crew peeled him away from the business of flaking skin long enough during the day’s ride to point above them. The underside of Third Sink was a moist expanse of stone; when clouds dipped beneath the edge they broke against the ceiling like waves. Drops later they would finally fall from the stone as scattered rain. Alast saw networks of vines crawling across the understone and realized that if he could see them from way down there, they must be truly massive plants. Their territory was closest to the edges, as no plant was strong enough to root upside down on the slick gray rock for a great distance.
They were not pointing out the rain or the vines though. Their fingers were trained on a dark purple stain on the understone. It was oval in shape, with raised round edges and wavy lines across its center. While Alast was observing it he saw a tiny piece of it break away and fall to the ground several lathers in front of them.
“What is it?” he asked. “And what is falling from it?”
“That is the top section of the Gummire,” the Captain said. “It is a deposit of rare minerals and moisture. It is held fast to the stone by its adhesive and elastic properties. Over the ages it started to break down and drip. We’ll be coming up on the bottom section soon.” True to his explanation, they only rode for two drops before the environment in front of them changed drastically. The ground squelched beneath the laggeren’s feet. The animals were particularly put off when they sank up to their ankles; they tried to jump their way through it only to sink a little bit further after each leap. The party turned to skirt the thickest of it.
Alast could see that the center of this strange puddle of minerals was as purple as the blob above. Strange trees grew out of the muck; their trunks dark and limbless. Huge bubbles formed in the purple sludge and burst with a sound like Porce choking in its sleep. Slupurch… fluck… slupuck. He also saw the bones of large animals that had apparently perished after being caught in the quagmire.
“It’s that sticky?”
“Yes Alast,” the Captain said. “Very special equipment is needed to traverse the Gummire. Even if you have it there’s always the chance you’ll be there at the wrong time and a fresh drop of the stuff will land on you like a boulder and pull you into its depths.”
“Does anyone ever go in?”
“Many try. A decent amount make it back out. We’re not in enough of a hurry to be that foolish, so we’re going around. It is a temptation because in addition to its useful industrial qualities, the gummine, as the substance is called, is extremely high in sugar and aromatic compounds.” Alast took a deep sniff. There was a smell; it was rotten, but that was just the surface of it. That was just the rotted wood and fetid swamp stink of perpetual death. Under that he smelled fruit, and of what type he had no idea. The fruity smell brought to mind something the same shade as the Gummire, plump and round and carrying an ocean of juice in the size of a fingertip. Alast knew no such fruit, but the scent promised him it had existed at some time. What a time that must have been.
“They make it into sweets,” Roary said.
“Not just any sweets,” the Captain continued. “A gummine confection is an art form unto itself. They come in all sorts of shapes, colors, and flavors. One has to be extremely careful when choosing the one they want, as gum candies are extraordinarily expensive. You could buy a small sailboat for the price of one.”
“Why are they so expensive?”
“Because of the extremely difficult process of extracting the gummine from this mire. Not to mention refining it so no pieces of soil, decaying wood, or animal bone are left behind. The expense does serve a practical purpose though; it helps curb addiction. I told you gummine was used in industry, and that’s because it’s extremely difficult to destroy. When you eat a gum candy it stays in your digestive cavity for the rest of your life, permanently added to your weight. An age ago it was only twenty-one washes, but time has changed its composition some. Most people who can afford them have only one or two in their entire lives. Still, there have been fools so rich they assumed their stomachs could grease the way and handle any toll the candies might charge. They sometimes die from intestinal blockage.”
“Have you ever had one Captain?”
“Me? Never. Bonepicking relies on the adjustment of weight. Even the slightest unnecessary addition to my mass makes the technique more difficult. I can only imagine how much it would bother me if its internal placement was off to one side.”
“I’ve had one,” Nayth said. “We took a ship two washes ago. Fancy thing. The sails looked like doilies. In a secret compartment we found a whole tray of them boxed up with a bow. The Captain let us split them so’s each of us on the boarding party got one. Mine was gold in color and had the delicate scent of honey it did. When I put it in my mouth I lost all my other senses. Eyes. Nose. Fingertips. All were silent while the sea of honey lapped at the edges of my teeth.”
“Mine was citrus,” Jopalish interjected. “I thought it was pretty good. Flavor didn’t last too long and then it was gone.”
“Except they’re not gone,” the Captain said. “They’re still tagging along, making you that much slower when you try to run, making your jump that much lower.”
“Don’t pretend you’ve never indulged,” Teal admonished. “I distinctly remember you having a sweet tusk when it came to those powder-topped Rin cakes they sold in Line River.”
“Completely different situation,” the Captain scoffed. “Rain and shine that is. There’s no evidence to suggest Rin cakes live inside you.”
“You had enough that your stomach poked out of your shirt for a rest,” she said, without smiling at her own jest.
“Never happened,” the Captain insisted. “Let’s press on before we run into the gum miners themselves. You never know with that lot whether you’ll get one that’s sweet or nutty.” The Gummire overhead looked so small from there; it surprised Alast how much ground they had to cover to actually move beyond its sticky influence. The swamp persisted for a whole day and the scent for two.
After that they came to Alast’s first Porce incline, where the World Floor met and joined with the vertical surface of Second Wall. Though Alast had spent his entire life on Second Wall until the rope ladder, the Metal Block projected far enough from its surface that gravitation had pulled him down towards the World Floor instead. The only time he had actually walked upon the wall was his disastrous swing to it, when the wild haunds had attacked him. Though they could see the Wall approaching since the start of their journey, except on the cloudiest days, Alast had expected the seam where it met the ground to be precise, like any corner in his home. Instead the slope was gentle, much gentler than the rapidly curling aker’s incline had been. The change in gravitation as their animals climbed the hill was so small as to be imperceptible. Alast got lost in his thoughts and by the time he returned they had already inverted. He looked back at what had been the ground and saw a wall.
Alast took stock of his knowledge once again. He realized he’d walked upon the walls of the world enough that he was no longer allowed to be astonished by it. It was now common. It was florentshine, a scuffed knee, or a chore like chiseling the shellfish off his bedroom wall. It pleased him greatly to see the empty space on the shelf of his mind labeled ‘mysteries’. Still so many. Still so dumb. I haven’t asked about ekapads. I still don’t know why Cardinal Second is so important or how it flies without ever tiring. It… it probably has something to do with gravitation! The Captain can practically float after all! I need to know why the Captain does what he does. How does it involve this Yugo? How can he be more powerful than a man who can bonepick?
The party stopped at the edge of a forest. Alast recognized the dark leaves and the bark gouged with tooth, tusk, and claw marks that couldn’t heal completely. The silence that meant everything beyond those trees was afraid of everything else beyond those trees. It was the Threewall Wild, once again impeding his progress. He wondered why the armies of Porce didn’t do something more useful than terrorizing the mist in search of magic stones, like taking a thousand axes to those trees until there was no place for the monsters to hide.
This peninsula of the Threewall Wild was its last outstretched limb on Second Wall. It didn’t go beyond the area beneath Third Sink, blocked as it was by wall civilizations below and the infertile waste that was the Reflecting Path above. Alast quickly removed his hands from Roary’s waist; his palms were sweating. He couldn’t tell if he feared the forest or just the reminder of the rope that forced his body into the shape of a dying bug for so long.
“You look paler than usual,” Herc said.
“Are we riding through the Wild?” Alast asked, his voice trembling slightly.
“It’s fine to be scared of these woods. Most everybody is,” Herc comforted.
“I haven’t told you all this,” Alast said, “but I tried to walk in the Wild instead of taking the rope.” I’ve barely told them anything about me. I’ve been too busy asking what every little thing in the word is, does, and intends. “I was attacked by the biggest haunds I’d ever seen. I only barely made it back to the rope in time.”
“Haunds? Is that all?” the Captain asked. “Consider yourself lucky Alast. The Threewall Wild holds far worse things than haunds. This may be the Age of Building, but as long as that forest has existed, within its confines, it has always been an age of growth. Everything is bigger than it should be. Getting disemboweled by haunds is practically a gift from the Wild. Save your fear for the bloodthirsty slorths, or the burheel, or the wuldagon.”
“S-so we are going through it then?”
“No. I’m not feeling much like getting disemboweled myself,” the Captain said. “There are many animals a man can ride Alast and you might be surprised to learn laggeren are not the best for the Shattered Tile scrublands we’ve been passing through. Usually you would pick something with less dainty feet. We chose laggeren for this trip because of their special talent.” Rob patted his laggeren on the flank. He urged it forward and leaned into its neck. The animal ran towards the tree line. Its run transformed into an elegant bound, its feet barely making a sound as they struck the grass. It leapt gracefully to a branch that looked far too small to hold it. Rob turned and looked at Alast. “You see? The laggeren treat the tree tops as the ground. We’re not going through the forest; we’re going over!”
The other animals bounded into the trees. Alast held on tighter than he needed to; he assumed their leaps would send him rocking back and forth, but the animals were so graceful and balanced that he hardly felt a thing as he was lifted from the ground and pulled into the canopy. In just a few drips he saw only bushy leaves when he looked down. The top of the Wild was now a meadow for the laggeren to frolic through. The beasts somehow traveled with greater speed through the canopy than they ever did on the ground. The ones in front kicked up a trail of leaves for Alast and Roary to playfully catch as they followed. The sea of green passed so quickly that they had to spend but a single night in the forest. Instead of using their tents they merely curled up in the high branches with their blankets. The laggeren curled together in a group, looking like a collection of fuzzy nests while they slept.
The night was the only time during their passage through the forest that Alast felt any fear. He never dared to look down after dark, but he heard the growls and snores below him. There was one hour in particular where he heard breath, a barking pant, directly below him. Whatever it was was so large that he could feel the wet heat from its breath on the back of his neck. He knew it was below him, waiting for him to fall, with its mouth agape and its tongue lolling out.
Alast stared up into the black sky and tried to find the outline of the florent. It was too dark to find, so he instead focused on the stars and the pinpricks of light he could see on the other side of the world. Cities. Places where there were so many people that they could make enough light to pretend night never came. Alast hated the forced inactivity of night. He’d wasted so much of his life in the dark that he didn’t think it fair he had to spend half of the rest of it in it by default. He could use that time for far better things than sleep. In fact, part of him believed it was the darkness that forced people to sleep in the first place. To him it was a command given by some inconsiderate grand schedule-keeper.
The following day the laggeren took them to the edge of the forest and then back to the ground. The gravel was gone. The land on the other side of the Wild was lush with the greens and blues of Porce plants. Coiled trees that simply could not decide which direction they wanted to lean made beautiful music in the cool wind of the day; it sounded like a thousand brooms made from green straw dancing in circles. The air was clean and wet and it tingled wonderfully against the fresh skin Alast’s burn had created. Every morning anointed his face with fresh experience. Even though his journey down the rope had nearly cost him his life, not having to return to the mist filled him with vigor like he had never felt. Every problem he faced, even solid stones in his path, seemed to become transparent. Captain Rob and his crew seemed to breeze through everything using little more than understanding, and Alast was hungry for that level of engagement with his world.
He pestered the others with questions constantly, but they mostly brushed him off. They kept saying there would be other members of the crew on the ship who would explain it better. Rob told him he was to have daily lessons when they finally got aboard the Greedy Old Mop, so he could stop being such an embarrassment to his Captain. That made Alast wonder when would be the best time to reveal his illiteracy. He didn’t yet know that most everybody raised in the world where you could see past your own arms had the talents of reading and writing by the time they were three rests old.
The boy waited. During nights, when Roary slept, he whispered his questions to Finick, storing them in the animal’s sparkling eyes for later. His irritation grew daily, but there was always something new to see that kept it at bay. After they had cleared the Threewall Wild they journeyed along the side of Third Sink closer to Metal Block. Their trail took them right alongside the shining white cliffs; Alast had never comprehended how vast the pieces of the world could be. He had to accept he was less than a bug alongside them, less than a single hair on a bug’s head.
Between the forest and the lip of Third Sink that would take them to port, Roary, Herc, and the other sailors at least taught him to be useful. Knots. A hundred knots for every situation. Knots for favorable wind but rough water. Knots for dead winds and placid water. Knots to keep down barrels. Knots to keep down crates. Knots to keep down prisoners. Knots to keep yourself down if you weren’t in your right mind. Knots to cut off blood flow if an amputation needed done. After a grim knot like that they would always teach him a more whimsical one like the ticklish wegger: a ten-step knot with seven loops that was absolutely perfect for balancing a cup of water in the air when you had nowhere else to put it.
Alast practiced them on a frayed piece of rope while they rode. He took immense pleasure in making the rope bend to his will. After the bridge it was his turn. He made them tighter than he needed to so he could hear the fibers groan as he pulled them. Steeped in bitter childish revenge, he mastered most of them immediately. Before they inverted again, this time from Second Wall to the whitish lip of the outcropping Third Sink, he was able to produce the six-step flying steed, the eleven-step tree of torture, and the exceedingly complicated forty-three step dim glow in the distance on command. His hate powered his learning so effectively that if the strange knotted shapes had also served as lettering Alast would’ve been as literate as anyone else in the party.
Sadly, that was not the case, so he didn’t understand the sign when they came to it. It was posted on a tall wooden fence that had grown slightly purple with age, just to the side of the gates of their destination: the port called Bucket. City people would call Bucket a port anyway, but the locals called it a town. Small homes and shops surrounded the main structure of Bucket that provided its name: a large circular lagoon fed by the Snyre Sea. It was built in such a way that when the tides came in, fish were forced into Bucket’s bucket by pressure. When the pressure decreased, the water was too shallow for the animals to reach the hole they’d entered through. That’s when the fisherfolk floated to the center with their rods and spears and nets and picked the day’s bounty out of it. Nearly every life in Bucket relied on that watery hole, which was why they put up the sign that Alast couldn’t read no matter how much he squinted.
To the he’s and she’s that enter Bucket:
Bucket may be your port, but it is not your home
Don’t put your feet up like it is
Don’t spit like it is
Our lagoon is not a swimming hole
Our lagoon is not a place for your garbage
Our lagoon is not to be insulted
It provides too well for us to let any insults stand
In the indefatigable scrawl of the poet Ironius Wrongr
“Touch you not the waters of foreign lands,
As none want waters touched by foreign hands”
Last warning. We’re deadly meaning it. Don’t touch the lagoon.
“It be a very friendly place Misty. You’ll love it,” Roary assured. The Captain ordered Alast to dismount, untie Cardinal Second, throw another tent over it, and pretend to carry it. Apparently it was not a good idea for anyone in Bucket to know they had it either.
Jopalish rapped the wooden gates with his knuckles. A small basket on a long flimsy rod came over the top of the fence and hovered near him. He dropped two square coins in it. It disappeared back behind the fence. A drip later the twin gates were unlatched and pulled open. They rode into Bucket.
Alast wasn’t sure if Bucket was larger than his hometown, mostly because the air had never been clear enough for him to survey the entire place. He guessed it was though, what with some buildings even having a second story. Some buildings also had the same purplish tint as the fence, while the newer ones were yellowish and smelled like sawdust and chalk. The hooves of the laggeren tapped on the wooden walkways beneath them as they circled around one side of the central lagoon. People walked back and forth as they went about their daily business. A man hung his undergarments out to dry. A fishmonger set out his fresh shoelace fish and organized them by length. A young woman with silky yellow hair walked by Alast, carrying a basket of clawed shells.
Is that what girls look like out in the open? The florent makes their skin so… perfect! It isn’t even burnt! Have I ever met a girl like that? There was little Falarn. Sometimes when she was out doing her chores I caught a glimpse of her smile. That smile was only six foams off the ground, but it was nice. I can only imagine what she’d look like out here. I bet the florent would make her taller just the way it straightened out twistenbeast’s bones. I bet Falarn would reach her hands towards the light and be as tall as me in two drips.
Alast felt something like a lightning strike of fear. He remembered the mist was in the path of Yugo’s army. He wasn’t the only young person trapped there by circumstance. There was Falarn, Lordanon’s boy Dralonon, Lot, Reels, and a few others. He pushed the pieces of their faces that he had to the back of his mind. They’d had every chance to leave that he did. No doubt they heard Orbon and him yelling warnings before they were pushed away.
A woman in a skirt walked by. A woman with no head. Alast counted the neckless shoulders circling the lagoon. It appeared nearly a third of the residents of Bucket were tilefolk. Several of them wore wide-brimmed hats that looked more like leaves made of leather than they did proper hats. The hair on their bodies came in all sorts of colors, from black and brown to red and yellow. He saw one as gray as the first moment of morning, limping along with a cane topped with a wooden head. He noticed the women lacked any sort of bosom, but they were still easy enough to tell apart thanks to the sway in their hips and the general thinness of their body hair. This is normal now. You can’t be scared of them. Don’t embarrass your Captain.
Captain Rob dismounted his laggeren and the rest of the crew followed. He handed the reins of two of the animals to Jopalish and the reins of the remaining four to Nayth and Herc. The three sailors marched the animals down an alleyway and towards a large barn; Alast could see fresh hay clumps bulging out of its windows and raining golden straw over the big doors.
“Do you not own those animals?” Alast asked the Captain.
“No,” he answered. “We rented them when we came through here last. Those three will return them and get the collateral we put up for them.” The Captain turned to Roary. He whispered something in his nephew’s ear. “Roary will run ahead to the ship and tell them we’re on our way. Alast, give him your haund. You and I have an errand where animals aren’t allowed.” Alast pulled Finick out of his pouch and stroked the animal’s back; he didn’t feel like parting with the creature that had been with him for the entirety of the rope. “Don’t worry lad, Roary will take good care of the whelp. He’ll introduce him to the other animals we keep on the ship. You’re not the only one with a pet.”
“Aye Captain,” Alast relented and gingerly handed the oblivious panting haund to Roary. After that Roary jogged away and rounded a corner. “What’s our errand Captain?”
“As part of my crew, you’ll be needing some life insurance.”
“I don’t know what that is Captain.”
“It’s a contract twixt me and another party. I pay them a small fee regularly. Should you suffer death in my employ they will provide me with a sum to help deal with your loss.”
“Deal with my loss?”
“I’ll be able to think about the big pile of coin I just made instead of thinking about my poor mangled cabin boy.”
“Couldn’t… couldn’t you just kill me yourself and collect the sum right away?” Alast asked. He already knew his least favorite thing about pirates: the inability to tell their cruel jokes from their cruelty.
“Some try that. The insurers have their own men that investigate deadly occurrences. They make sure the deaths are honest.” Alast decided to assert himself. He had fresh skin after all; it was time to harden it.
“I’ll happily work for you Captain, but I don’t appreciate talk that makes me sound like I should be chewing hay in that barn over there. It was hard enough getting here; I’d hate to find out it’s worse than where I was.”
“Everywhere is worse in its own way,” Teal said. Alast had forgotten she was there. When she wasn’t speaking Teal seemed to vanish, but when she was she became the center of the world: a frigid stone monolith from which all fresh water flowed. “But nowhere in Bucket or aboard the Mop will you have to worry about Rob mistreating you. He only likes to pretend he’s a slave driver.”
The Captain and the First Mate handed their bags to Alast so they could each take one side of Cardinal Second and pretend to bear its weight. Alast pulled the bags over his shoulders and waddled behind them as they moved away from the lagoon and into another alley. Halfway to the insurance office Alast spotted something both familiar and peculiar. It was an empty wagon resting on the side of the street. It had four wooden wheels and two wooden bars for hooking up an animal. What Alast noticed was the color and texture of the wagon’s body.
“Hey,” he said as he lumbered over to the wagon under the weight of the bags. He placed both his hands on the wagon’s smooth edge and ran them across it. Shfuh. He slid his hands back and forth. Shfuh fuhsh shuf. “This is made of bropato!”
“Many things are,” Rob said.
“This was my job in the mist,” Alast explained. “I harvested bropato right where it grew. Only…” He trailed off in confusion. “We never sold pieces this large. I thought we were the only people in the world selling it.”
“Bropato does only come from Metal Block,” Rob explained, “but Metal Block is nearly half the size of Third Sink. Plenty of harvesters live at the edge. Bropato is a pliable substance: strong as wood, flexible as paper. Large sheets of it can be folded to make the bodies of many things: carts, wagons, ships, even buildings and engines of war. The process is called folduction. You’re looking at a folducted wagon.”
“Is the Mop made of bro’?”
“No. Bropato is much too weak for a vessel that size. The Mop is made up of the mightiest trees of the Grontahl forest, the resilient topa canvas of First Stall, watertight gummine resins, and of course a hand-picked crew of the finest sailors in the world. Now get away from there before the owner comes back to find you pawing his belongings.” Alast released his grip on the wagon and obediently followed Teal and Rob. He did not wish to insult the Captain, but for a moment he had imagined himself at home inside a bropato boat, smelling the familiar smells of his workdays with Orbon. Alast quietly sniffed at his palms as they passed through the threshold of a small building.
There was a woman behind the counter with skin even darker than Herc’s. Alast thought she was very pretty, which led him to think that perhaps every female outside of the mist that actually had a head was beautiful.
“Good day Miss Tunnelr,” Rob greeted her. “I’m here for some insurance on my new cabin boy.” Rob pointed to Alast, who presented himself for inspection. Miss Tunnelr brought out a stack of papers and a charcoal pencil for Rob to fill them out with. He handed the cardinal tile to Teal. Miss Tunnelr eyed the strangely light object suspiciously.
“I’m surprised you’re showing your face here right now Rob,” she said. Her accent was strange to Alast; he wondered if she was raised speaking Pawtymouth. “When Bucket’s filled with Yugo’s people.” The Captain dropped the pencil.
“What sorts of Yugo’s people?” he asked. His question sounded like it was read off a headstone.
“Yugo’s cut off all our trade with Metal Block while he’s occupying it. Anybody that gets him something useful gets access. He’s got a list of his wishes nailed on the doors around here. Even mine.”
“This building doesn’t have a door,” Alast said.
“I know,” Miss Tunnelr spat. Apparently she didn’t think much of cabin boys. “It’s against his rules to take the papers down, so I just took the door down instead. Yugo doesn’t work here, so he’s not putting his name out front. I don’t care how many walking boulders he’s got.”
“Is it no one else then?” Rob asked.
“I think there’s a scout or two here,” Miss Tunnelr admitted.
“Right. We’d better get going,” the Captain said as he set the pencil on the papers and slid them over. “Come on you two.”
“Excuse me! You only filled half this out. The boy needs his health inspected.” Rob rubbed his head and rolled it around on his fur collar.
“Alast, demonstrate your health to the woman,” he ordered. Alast ran back and forth across the office floor three times, jumped towards the counter and backward five times, and then grabbed the pencil off the counter and bit it in half. He opened his mouth to show his teeth were undamaged and his tongue was a healthy pink.
“I suppose that’s adequate,” Miss Tunnelr said. “You’ll have to do the rest of this paperwork by post.”
“Fine, fine, fine,” Rob muttered as he grabbed the side of the tile opposite Teal. As they left Alast noticed a distinct increase in their speed. Even the mention of Yugo frightened them. He didn’t know what a scout would look like, but he kept his eyes open. He had the feeling his tight blue mist clothes marked him as the strangest sight in Bucket, so those staring at him weren’t necessarily more suspicious than anyone else. They hauled the bags and the tile out past the central lagoon and onto a series of five docks that extended into the Snyre like fingers off a palm. They stopped on the thumb of the five decks, which bent in the middle and provided several places for planks and ramps to be placed.
Up the ramps and lines waited the Greedy Old Mop. Alast looked up. He was amazed. He looked up some more. His breathing felt thin, as if he was perched high in the mast already. He looked up further and finally saw the tip of the magnificent vessel. He’d never seen a sailing ship before and he hadn’t expected the sails to be so full of life; they billowed and swelled in the wind like vigorous stirrings in a barrel of cream. They were not the limp soggy bedsheets of his imagination. He heard them laugh in the wind and he wanted to stand under them, pulling a rope tied in place by wonderful knots like the sailor’s snowflake or the buttered spiral, and laugh with them.
His eyes went to the bow and journeyed for ages until his stare dove off the stern. Her hull was a lively forest green, like she might start sprouting branches and leaves at any moment. She was a seedpod busting with life, just waiting for the wind and water to deposit her in the shallows so she could take root and make more ships for the rest of Porce to enjoy. A thousand knotted ropes were wrapped around the long beakhead to the point where the wood underneath could not be seen. Brown, green, orange, and yellow tassels hung at various lengths, frayed by their ages and the sea air full of the sharp white dust blown from the lip of Third Sink. The ropes at the tip of the ship were the only things that appeared grimy and worn. I guess that part’s why they call it the Mop. Fresher brighter ropes thicker around than Alast’s thigh hung in swoops all the way around the ship, coming together in a giant bow at the stern, wrapping the ship up like a gift.
“She’s 256 foams long,” the Captain said, noting his awe. “Crewed by 205 men and women. Filled with everyone’s quarters, a galley, a brig, cannon decks, my laboratory, the library, and plenty of machined secrets.”
“She… is wonderful,” Alast said. “I can’t believe this is my new home. She’s much bigger than my house. She’s the biggest thing I’ve ever seen this close.” He remembered the aker. “That didn’t try to kill me anyway.”
“We are in a hurry lad, so take those bags on up,” Rob reminded. Alast let his foot fall on the ramp. Thonk. Then the other. Thonk. He was off the dock. He’d officially gone out to sea. He was an adventurous pirate. The ramp was steep, so he hurried to the top before he ran out of breath completely. When he set foot on deck the bags were immediately taken from him by another man who didn’t stick around to introduce himself. The boy whirled around and saw thirty or so men and women moving about the deck, paying no attention to him whatsoever. They pulled ropes, rolled barrels, and ordered each other around. One group played a game of wagers over in the corner that they promptly disassembled the moment they heard the Captain coming. One of them even swallowed a few of the game pieces he couldn’t fit in his pocket in time. When the crew saw the shape of the tile, even under its covering, they immediately recognized it. All went quiet. A man and a woman approached the Captain and took it from him. They disappeared down a hatch, which, now that he was stripped of the stone and his haund, made Alast feel emptyhanded.
“You all know how precious that is,” the Captain projected, “and how small you are compared to it. I trust you to guard it with your lives until we have opportunity to see it returned. Now get us on the water.”
“Aye Captain!” the crew shouted in unison. The activity around Alast quickened. He dumbly wandered to the center of the deck and took in his surroundings. The crew lifted the ramps and stored them below deck. They hauled in all the lines hanging over the side, except for one. Someone at the helm shouted a heading and pulled the ship towards the center of Third Sink. Alast had heard of seasickness, sometimes the disorienting mist had caused it in travelers, and was relieved to not feel a flake of it in his own stomach. He actually found the rhythmic tilt and the yawns of the stretching boards beneath him quite reassuring, like being rocked to sleep in the arms of a tree so tall that nothing could reach you. He put his hands on the yellow wood of the central mast.
His neck strained as he looked to the top of it. The first thing that caught his eye was a massive round bulge in the middle of the mast. Whatever it was, it was covered completely by sailcloth. He recognized the showman’s handshake holding the cloth to it. Up past the mysterious orb he saw the flying colors of the Greedy Old Mop. The flag was yellow and bore a dark green skull with two upturned spikes erupting from its cheekbones. What an odd face! What creature is that?
Once Bucket had shrunk into the distance and they were safely surrounded by the open waters of the Snyre, the Captain grabbed Alast’s shoulder. Alast was busy looking out at the expanse of liquid land and trying to judge how far it was from the water to the lip of Third Sink that surrounded them on all sides as gray-white cliffs. He was only pulled back to the deck when the Captain said his name.
“Pay attention all. I’m only doing this once, so it’s your job to introduce him to everyone else below decks. This is Alast Nonamr. We picked him up clinging to Cardinal Second out in the desert. He’s from that patch of mist on Block and he’s dumb as a plunger right now, but I’m sure you’ll enlighten him swiftly. He’s the new cabin boy. Let’s put some names in his skull for starters. Roll call. Keep it neat lads: surname alphabetical order.” The sailors took turns shouting their names in Alast’s vague direction. The thirty on deck had shrunk to just twelve after they’d shoved off, and Alast challenged himself to memorize them all. At the very least it gave him a better understanding of what a surname was supposed to sound like for when he finally earned and crafted his own.
“Now that you’re all the best of chums,” the Captain started, “it’s time for your first test Alast.”
“Test, Captain?” he asked. He felt the bitter jab of having to admit the mist had one more advantage: even in the open, people never saw you fail. If Alast wasn’t up to the task his twelve new best chums would laugh until his cheeks were redder than when the florent had roasted them.
“This is a pirate ship lad. We thrive on conflict. I need to know if you can handle yourself in a fight or if you’ll be hiding below with the rummins.” (Blaine’s note: A rummin seems to fill the same role as a rat.) “Do you know how to fight?”
“Aye,” Alast chirped. That was the kind of test he felt ready for. He’d certainly outclassed the man who’d attacked him on Metal Block. “I can handle a sword.”
“That’s flushed perfect,” Rob said. A smile grew across his face, his white teeth poking out like the fresh flesh of a bug splitting its old shell. “There’s a sword in the documents room you can use. Right through that door.” He pointed beyond the mast. Wesselbon and Maryjohn, wearing the same suspicious smiles, stepped aside to show him the door. It looked ordinary enough. “Fetch it and bring it here.”
Alast looked around. Everyone watched. He walked over to the door. The knob was one of many artistic touches on the ship; it resembled a miniature version of the helm. He put his fingers through the spokes and turned. He crossed the threshold and closed the door behind him; it gave him at least a few drips to breathe without so many eyes on him. The documents room was true to its name. It was small, hardly more than a closet. Shelves lined the left and right sides and they were packed full of leather-bound volumes and loose yellowed papers. There was a writing desk at the center of the room. Loose pencils of varying darkness rolled back and forth on the desk as the ship rocked, but never fell to the floor. Something Alast had never seen was seated behind the desk.
It was the face he’d seen on the flag. It wasn’t green and there were no spikes, but it had the same empty eyes and lipless mouth. Alast knew of bones; he’d cleaned and gutted hundreds of farm animals in his life, but he’d never seen a lightfolk skeleton. The texture of a twistenbeast skull and its similar sockets were the only clues to its identity. He took a step forward. Could it be? Is it a man? A dead man… These are man bones? This is what’s at my core? Its arms were on the desk. A sword was in its upturned hands, as if presenting the blade to the boy. The skeleton wore clothes much like the other pirates, like he was just a deckhand shirking his duties.
The sockets were empty, but he still felt people staring. There was a shelf behind the desk with four more skulls resting in a row. They watched Alast as he reached his hand out. He didn’t know if he should ask for permission to take the blade. The ship rocked. The skull shifted on its spine and turned to Alast. He jumped back and hit his own backbone against the shelf. He grunted in pain and held out his hand in case the skeleton attacked. It just stared. If this is a dead man, it can’t do anything. It’s the same as all the other bones you’ve touched. You can handle this. You’ve sucked marrow out of things scarier than him. You’ve broken a thousand of them and made stew. His hand shot forward and grabbed the sword by the hilt.
The skeleton’s fingers tightened around his. He tried to wrench free, but the bones pulled him back. Its jaw dropped open.
“Aaarrhaaahaaeee!” it laughed and wheezed. The four skulls on the shell popped their mouths open and joined in. “Aaaaaahararharhar!” Alast pulled back and screamed. He called for help. Surely everyone heard him, but nobody came in. He let his hand go limp so he could slip out of its white claws. Alast reeled backward and hit the door; he fumbled behind him for the knob and when he found it he collapsed back out onto the deck. If the florent burns flesh then surely it collapses bones to powder. I must be safe in the light. I must. Without checking the room to see, he scrambled to his feet and ran to hide behind the mast.
Only when his gasping subsided enough for him to hear the world did he realize the laughter wasn’t just the echo of the horrible creatures, it was everyone on deck. They all laughed at him, except for Teal.
“The bones,” he warned. “The bones are alive!” Their laughter intensified. The crewman who had swallowed his game pieces guffawed so violently that he spit one of them back up. This is a trick. It’s something I’m supposed to understand. Bones are alive and headless men can speak. How are bones alive? Don’t know yet…
“Come on out here Pops,” Rob said between chortles. He waved someone over. Alast leaned over the side of the mast and watched the skeleton from the documents room emerge with the sword in its hand.
“I got him good lads,” the skeleton declared. He was met with a roar of approval. Alast realized the voice coming out of its fleshless throat wasn’t an unporcely wail, but the fairly normal grumble of an elderly man.
“Don’t be afraid Alast. This fine stack of ivory is my grandfather: Kilrorke Ordr.”
“I-I’m honored to meet you,” Alast stammered. He couldn’t bring himself to pull his back off the mast quite yet. He wanted to feel grounded out there in the middle of the sea, and the mast was the closest thing he had. “Forgive me. I didn’t know bones could live. Are mine alive? Is that the little voice in the back of your head that argues against the things you think you know?” He tried to let the laughter wash over him without unmooring him. Getting the answer was more important than being ridiculed.
“That’s as good a guess as any, but completely wrong,” Rob said. “Sometimes a set of bones keeps its soul when the rest dies. Not always. When it does happen they metamorphose from man into something like Pops here. Eternal life, long as the skull doesn’t break. No need for food or drink or air. No feeling of hot and cold. They still need sleep though, and Pops loves napping in the documents room.”
“I love the sound of those little pencils rolling about,” Rorke said, twiddling his bony fingers so they made a clicking sound. “It’s mighty relaxing.”
“Alast, let me introduce you to the gravefolk,” Rob said. He lifted a bronze whistle from his pocket and created a piercing note. Several hatches flew open on the deck, including one just foams in front of Alast. Out crawled more skeletons, each stranger looking than the last. A few popped out of barrels on the deck and burst out of the other cabin doors. They came out laughing at the blue mist boy, smacking each other on the shoulder blades with a tlick sound. Their toe bones clicked, clacked, and cracked as they gathered around him.
Some appeared normal, with no individual markings other than the occasional crack on their skull or a stumpy broken rib. Some wore clothes and some displayed their empty pelvises proudly. Some were taller and some were shorter. When he saw one pelvis rocking back and forth as it walked he realized there were just as many bony women there as men.
He didn’t know it yet, but there were three main schools of self-ornamentation when it came to the undead gravefolk. One school chose not to adorn their bones with anything, except clothing when the living around them demanded it. Another school preferred to separate themselves from the other gravefolk, to reclaim some identity, by decorating the surface of their bones with various metals. They felt no pain, so it didn’t bother them in the slightest when smiths expertly poured molten metals, cooled nearly back to solidity, on their bones and used flat scrapers to evenly distribute it. Alast saw gravefolk with iron eyebrows, copper teeth, and silver fingertips. Some even had plates of gold with ornate etchings and jewels set in them stuck to their foreheads or the back of their skulls. A few were covered in metal from head to toe. Jewelry in the shape of eyes dangled from the tops of some of their sockets.
The third school was the strangest looking of all. They were the ones who missed their flesh most, so they did their best to imitate it. The leather of the curtenbeast, a creature that can turn around inside its own skin, when soaked and dried over repeated rinses, could be molded around the bones of gravefolk as imitation flesh. It was deep brown in color, nearly purple, and easily notched and refitted for further modification. A leathered gravefolk looked a bit oxymoronic, like a supple mummy. Their faces were often modeled off old drawings of them in life, complete with leather noses, ears, wigs of animal hair, and glass eyes. When one of the leathered ones extended a hand to help Alast away from the mast he took it and noticed how her false skin felt like a normal gloved hand.
The one who helped him was a girl, at least in spirit, but he did not determine that until she spoke in a voice befitting his own age. She had leathered flesh across her body and wore lively orange clothing over it. Her skull however was bare, with the leather stopping just below the jawbone. Her head was covered in artificial hair made not of striped or spotted fur, but of hundreds of small chains that alternated between metal rings and colored wooden beads. Whenever she moved her head they rattled loudly.
“Aren’t you blue as the sea,” she said upon examining him.
“Alast, this is my Second Mate Dawn Shockr,” Rob introduced. Alast shook the bony girl’s hand. “She heads our skeleton crew. They work most of the night while the rest of us snooze below. Of the 205 aboard my ship, 166 are gravefolk. Saves us an awful lot when it comes to food. Dawn alone ate me under the table when she had a stomach.”
“You’re making me blush Captain,” Dawn said, touching a hand to her dry white cheekbone.
“Sorry about the joke lad,” Rob offered. “I had Roary run ahead so he could tell this lot to hide and jump out at you. You just made it far too easy with that misty mind of yours. I promise we’ll get straight to the business of scrubbing it out.” Roary, Herc, and Finick emerged from one of the cabin doors now that the trap had been sprung. The tiny haund bounded over to his master and accepted exactly three strokes before running off down the deck.
“He loves it here already,” Roary told him. “I don’t think he’s ever seen so much wood in his life.” Alast had finally caught up with the situation enough to joke back, but he felt a poke on his shoulder before he could say anything. He looked over and saw grandfather Rorke handing him the sword he hadn’t quite retrieved from the documents room.
“I suppose I am still to be tested,” Alast said and gently lifted the sword from the skeleton’s hands. “I am ready. Am I fighting you Captain?”
“I’m the one who plays with the new fish,” Dawn said. She reached to her hip and unsheathed a rusty thorny bonepicking sword. Alast recognized the characteristic bulge in its center where the blade curved.
“Do you know how to bonepick?” he asked with a gulp.
“Gravefolk are the only ones who can bonepick,” Rob said, “except for yours truly. Being half dead gets rid of a lot of distractions. It lets you feel the gravitation pulling on your bones. Now start sparring so we can get on with our lives.” The crowd of gravefolk and fleshy sailors backed up to create a circle around Alast and Dawn. It’s just a test. She won’t hurt me. I can’t clean anything if she slices off my cleaning hand. Alast held up his sword and circled slowly around her. He couldn’t judge her expression at all, on account of her not having one. He tried to remember the kinds of moves Rob had displayed when escaping the aker. The bonepicking sword was like having a fifth limb at your disposal. He made a note to keep an eye on her arms and legs. If she balanced on the blade any combination of her limbs might come at him for free punches and kicks. He positioned himself near the mast since he sensed a barrier between them might work to his advantage.
“Do the tornado!” someone in the crowd shouted at Dawn. She obliged by rushing toward Alast and entering an inhumanly fast spin. Her sword became a blur. Rather than try to block a move that would surely knock the sword from his hand, Alast ducked low and thrusted his blade between her knees. It was smart to try and trip her, but Dawn stopped the spin abruptly. Somehow her inertia had vanished in a flash. He’d hoped her skull would at least wobble a bit to indicate dizziness, but the only thing he sensed was an invisible sneer.
“Haaaauuh!” she yelled and brought the sword down like a guillotine. Alast rolled backward just as it stuck in the deck. Dawn pitched forward and rolled, creating a bladed wheel similar to the technique Alast had seen Rob use. He swung his sword against her side before she could build that unstoppable bonepicking speed. He succeeded in destabilizing her roll, something she countered by jumping to the right. Alast moved to swing at her, but her body changed direction in mid-air with an unnatural lurch to the left, like she was being batted about by the paws of a giant invisible wolptinger. She sliced down and across; Alast again avoided it by going low.
Dawn adjusted her strategy to stop his below-the-belt tactics. Her body dropped forward onto all fours with her jaw and pelvis practically scraping the deck. She scuttled forward with terrifying quickness, locomoting in a way that would surely break the wrists and ankles of any man fully alive. She lifted one arm and slashed repeatedly towards his ankles. Alast leapt back every time. He bumped into the mast. If she’s high I’m low. If she’s low I’m high. He grabbed a loose rope. Dawn popped up and smashed the top of her skull into Alast’s chest. He took the impact the best he could and spun away, using her borrowed force to swing on the rope. He traveled all the way around the mast. When he released the rope he extended his leg for a flying kick.
Dawn slapped the top of his foot down and he collapsed onto the deck. They can at least see I don’t give up, Alast told himself. He hopped back to his feet and went for another thrust. Maybe I can’t bonepick, but I can learn how to stop it. If you slash or put your weight into anything they just use the force against you. Thrusts are the key. He tried to lodge his blade in her clothes, somewhere between her ribs so he could get some leverage, but nothing took. She deflected every thrust. Dawn flipped in place and balanced her upside down body on top of her blade. She kicked at him and punched with her free hand. Alast crouched and then leapt up, catching one of her wrists as she went forward for another punch. Her leather-coated hand separated from her wrist, flew through the air, and slapped against the mast. Dawn dropped back to her feet, loaded gravitation energy into her knees, and sprang forward like a cannonball. She caught him in the chest again and knocked him into the mast. All of his breath was left behind. He slumped to his bottom and dropped the sword.
“S-sorry about your hand,” he wheezed. “I didn’t know it would…”
“Relax Bluey,” she said. She reached down and picked up her severed hand, then popped it back onto her wrist. She flexed all her finger bones. “No harm done. Get back up here.” She extended the apparently uninjured hand to help him up. Once he was on his feet again he realized Rob and the others were clapping. Once again it was only Teal who looked at him like there was nothing to see.
“Good show boy,” Rob praised.
“Did I pass the test Captain?” Alast wheezed. He handed the sword back to Rorke and tried not to picture the perfectly round bruise darkening his sternum.
“Flying colors Alast. You’ve caught me unawares. Seems you’re already a better fighter than half my crew. What’s your secret?”
“I’m not sure Captain. I think it’s because I learned to fight in the mist. You can’t see your opponent. I always thought I was terrible, but out here when I can see it feels… it feels a little like I can see a few drips ahead.”
“Fascinating,” the Captain said, more to himself than anyone else. Someone drew the Captain’s attention. They pointed to the one line that had not been pulled in when the Greedy Old Mop set sail. The thick rope was wiggling back and forth. “We forgot to fish out the Ice Master,” the Captain said with a little laugh. “Somebody pull poor Man back up here.” Two of the deckhands heaved until the rope was a big serpont-like pile on the deck. They pulled another gravefolk over the side and wiped some sea weeds from his skull. His clothes were heavy with water. There was a blue compass scrimshawed between his eye sockets.
“How long was I down there Captain?” the dripping skeleton asked. He shivered and chattered his teeth even though he couldn’t feel the cold. “I see everybody else is out and about, eh Captain? So the joke ended and nobody bothered to get me. You all forgot about me again. I could’ve learned to drown in the time I was down there you know Captain. I don’t appreciate it Captain. I don’t appreciate it one bit Captain.”
“Alast, this is our Ice Master Manathan Shuckr. He makes sure we don’t run afoul of any sea ice,” the Captain introduced.
“It’s an honor,” Alast said and extended his hand. Man stared at the boy’s outstretched hand like his jailer was offering him a fruit-filled pastry.
“Well,” he said, “it’s nice to finally get a little respect.” He grabbed Alast’s hand and shook it up and down vigorously. He seemed to forget he was supposed to be cold. “Good to meet you lad. It’s good to meet someone with manners.” He spat the last word at his crewmates, who, if they had them, stuck out their tongues in return.
“That’s enough excitement for now I think,” Rob said. “Alast, why don’t you go below decks with Roary. He’ll show you around.” Roary popped open a hatch and gestured for Alast to descend. He did as he was told. Once the hatch was closed the quiet creaking of the vessel was replaced by the sounds of carousal. He’d never heard so many people so happy and busy at the same time. He wondered if bugs had this much fun inside their hives.
“Come on Misty I’ll show you your hammock first,” Roary said.
No more beds for me. No more wet blankets and moldy pillows. No more shellfish clicking loudly through the night. I’m over all that and now I even get to sleep over it. How much better can this get? Don’t know yet…
Continued in Part Three